50 US experts implore Obama to press Syria harder

Petition calls for US president to demonstrate greater leadership, apply tougher sanctions, increase opposition contacts.

By OREN KESSLER
December 22, 2011 01:19
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama [file]

US President Barack Obama 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

 
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Around 50 US-based experts on Middle East policy and strategy signed an open letter to President Barack Obama this week imploring him to demonstrate greater leadership on the Syria crisis.

Their petition calls for tougher sanctions, greater contact with Syria’s opposition and the creation of havens for the protection of Syrian civilians. Signatories include expatriate activists from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt as well as commentators, academics and former top-level national security officials Elliott Abrams, L. Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith.

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The letter calls for four specific actions to help bring an end to the “brutality” the regime of President Bashar Assad has inflicted on its people.

First, it appeals to the White House to support “crippling” sanctions on Damascus proposed by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Mark Kirk and Joe Lieberman, and representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Eliot Engel.

Next, it recommends the formation of a contact group of international allies to coordinate strategies for increasing pressure on Assad.

Third, it calls for greater interaction with the Syrian opposition, “especially the Syrian National Council, as well as those who have defected from the Syrian military,” to evaluate their leadership and weigh options for increasing their influence.

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Last, it suggests working with Turkey and other international partners to create havens for Syrians fleeing the violence, “as well as no-go zones for the Assad regime’s security forces.”

“The Syrian government, which has been on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terror list since 1979, maintains a strategic partnership with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

For years, the Assad regime also assisted the transit of foreign fighters who were responsible for killing numerous American troops in Iraq,” the signatories wrote.

“The emergence of a representative Syrian government that protects the rights of all of its citizens and opposes violent extremism in all forms would therefore be a significant blow to Tehran and dramatically improve regional security and stability.”

The letter also criticizes the Obama administration for warning all parties in Syria against “militarizing” the uprising.

Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – the Washington think tank that released the letter on Monday, along with the Foreign Policy Initiative – said those remarks have been counterproductive.

“The administration has consistently expressed its preference for peaceful opposition, and has at times even made statements that could be read as actively discouraging an armed resistance, saying that could jeopardize international support,” Badran, a signatory to the petition, told The Jerusalem Post. “So there’s a problem in the administration’s conceptualization of a peaceful versus armed opposition.”

Regarding military intervention, the letter confines its recommendation to humanitarian measures to protect civilians in Syria. But Seth Cropsey, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former US national security official, said he personally supports the deployment of special forces to the country.

“Military intervention could be useful in the form of special operations forces that would help organize, train and equip groups that oppose Assad,” he told the Post. “I support the use of such forces, as well as intelligence assets” to help unseat the Syrian president,” said Cropsey, who also signed the petition.

Assad agreed earlier this week to allow monitors into Syria to oversee the implementation of an Arab League peace plan, but Badran said the move would not likely have a tangible effect on the ground. He noted that Damascus has agreed to allow them in only “in coordination with Syrian authorities” and has said it would bar them from “military areas” the government can designate at its whim.

“What happens when there is no real implementation? Will the Arab League still muster the consensus to condemn and refer to the UN Security Council? Will it maintain sanctions? Or will Assad, through this maneuver, succeed in further torpedoing Arab consensus against him, thus helping him further negotiate and buy time?” he asked.

“One thing also to keep in mind with these types of initiatives, is Lebanon during the civil war [of 1975-1990]. We saw countless ‘initiatives’ to stop the fighting... that amounted to nothing,” said Badran, who is Lebanese. “Let’s see the implementation. My sense is that everyone is expecting him not to abide by it. Then the question will be what happens next.”

Cropsey said he too puts little stock in Assad’s gesture.

“I don’t take Syria’s nominal agreement to accept Arab League monitors seriously,” he said. “Assad wants to stay in power and will do what he thinks necessary to achieve this.”

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